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Squirms of Endearment

By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 21, 2000


    'Chuck & Buck' Mike White, Chris Weitz in "Chuck & Buck." (Artisan)
There's something about Mike White's face – soft, unformed and lightly freckled, with eely lips that squirm like a worm on a hook, and affectless, staring eyes whose nearly invisible, strawberry-blond lashes give him him a vaguely alien look – that's hard to turn away from. And yet you will want to.

White plays one half the title duo of "Chuck & Buck," a provocative and uncomfortable comedy (and I use the word very loosely) from director Miguel ("Star Maps") Arteta about a 27-year-old man with the personality of an 11-year-old. White, who also wrote the disturbing and funny (in a slowly insinuating way) script, plays Buck O'Brien, a lollipop-sucking man-child who still lives with his mom in northern California and sleeps with a vaporizer in a room filled with toys. After his mother dies suddenly, Buck writes to his childhood friend Chuck Sitter (Chris Weitz), inviting him back home for the funeral.

When the slick and worldly Chuck – now known as Charlie and living with his fiancee Carlyn (Beth Colt) in Los Angeles, where he works in the recording industry – shows up, only an inkling of Buck's attachment to his old school chum can be felt, although it's obvious that there's a physical component, at least on Buck's part. Acting on a casual, but probably sincere, invitation from Carlyn to come out to L.A. and visit sometime, Buck drops everything, takes his inheritance, vaporizer and a carload of plastic gewgaws and follows Charlie south. Once there, however, the full, queasy nature of Buck's fixation manifests itself. His single-minded pursuit of his onetime playmate becomes more sinister as he makes himself more and more of a nuisance, renting a theater across the street from his love object's office to stage an allegorical play he's written called "Hank & Frank."

Why no one ever calls the police on Buck is the real stumper here, but it's a testament to White's carefully shaded portrayal, which skirts stalker cliches and grown-up-kid-in-a-man's-body caricatures. What is he? Part geek, part loser, part dweeb. Is he retarded, autistic, crazy, painfully shy? I found myself looking for new classifications to describe this awkward monster although the word "inappropriate" kept coming to mind in everything he did.

Although he'll probably give many viewers the heebie-jeebies, everyone he comes into contact "with on screen takes him at face value, which gently leads us to do the same. Beverly the theater manager (the wonderful Lupe Ontiveros) treats him like sweet, damaged goods and Sam (Paul Weitz), the talentless and swaggering actor Buck casts in his play, befriends him in a way that is almost tender, despite the bizarrely mismatched components.

Special note should be made of the well-chosen music in "Chuck & Buck," composed and supervised by Joey Waronker, Tony Maxwell and Smokey Hormel and including – in a brilliant touch – the Modern Lovers' 1976 ode to obsessive yearning, "Astral Plane."

"Chuck & Buck" is no tale of unrequited love exactly, although it has some of that in its genetic code. On one level, it's a dark fable of personal growth (minus the formulaic, third-act resolution) but it's also a clash of wills between two stubborn people, the stronger of whom may ultimately surprise you.

CHUCK & BUCK (R, 97 minutes) – Contains obscenity, sexual liaisons and an accident involving fireworks.


© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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